Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ken Burns Discuss How Race and Class Are Still America’s Fault Line

Moderator Carlos Watson  with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and documentarian Ken Burns during a discussion of their two upcoming PBS films at a WETA event at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2016
Moderator Carlos Watson with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and documentarian Ken Burns during a discussion of their two upcoming PBS films at a WETA event at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on March 14, 2016

A frank discussion about race and class with two of the nation’s best-known historians quickly turned into a referendum on the rhetoric and vitriol that have turned the 2016 presidential campaign into what some see as a circus.


Both documentarian Ken Burns and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. see the current electoral environment as a backlash against the election of the nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama.

“The fact that a black man won drove some people out of their minds,” Gates, who is also chairman of The Root, said to a rapt crowd at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “[Donald] Trump figured out how to tap into the fears and anxieties of a significant segment of American people. You could hope that somebody like Hillary [Clinton] or Bernie [Sanders] could do a similar analysis but assuage their fears.”

But Gates told those attending the WETA-sponsored discussion “American Fault Line: Race and the American Ideal” that he thinks things on the campaign trail are going to get more intense.

“Trump can smell victory, and rather than pull back, he seems to be getting worse. He seems to be making the contradiction in American society his meal ticket,” Gates warns. “That’s demagoguery … and when we see the violence at some of his rallies, I’m afraid that’s going to spread.”

Burns also discussed the turmoil and increasing friction in the nation since the election of President Obama.

“When I fantasized about the election of a black president, I assumed it would be a Republican. I assumed the American people could only tolerate a conservative, moderate Republican, so Barack Obama took me completely by surprise,” Burns said.


But he added that he thinks those who are disturbed by the election of an unapologetically black man will ensure that it is an “awfully long time” before another African American sits in the White House.

Gates commented that he thinks Obama also thought that his election augured a new era in race relations.


“I would imagine that he is shocked,” Gates said, “at the vehement reaction at the other end of the ideological pole.”

The two men showed clips from their upcoming PBS films. Gates’ work, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, looks at the history of African Americans since the death of iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.


“What if King and Malcolm [X] woke up and said, ‘What’s been going on over the past 50 years?’” Gates wondered. “What would I tell them in a four-hour film?”

Clips shown from his film included activist and Freedom Rider Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture) trying to sign up voters in the South in the early 1960s amid sometimes deadly intimidation. Gates said the thing that surprised him the most was the courage of black people at the time.


“These were people who literally decided enough is enough—‘I’d rather die than continue to be a slave or neo-slave,’” Gates declared. “We’d talk about Dr. King and them. The ‘and them’ was the anonymous, regular African American who lived in this cesspool of segregation and they decide to stand up.”

Burns’ Jackie Robinson tells not only the story of a complicated, multigenerational American family but also a love story about the grandson of slaves determined to change things in a far wider realm than just baseball, and the woman who stood by his side.


“We talk about Jackie crossing the color line, but we never talk about the color line, so we make it available and contemporary,” Burns explained. “We don’t appreciate what it was like to be African American in that period. But this post-emancipation, pre-Voting Rights Act era was fraught with fear.”

One clip from Burns’ film shows Robinson’s widow, Rachel, recalling how they took their honeymoon during spring training and ran smack into Jim Crow laws that bumped them off airplanes in favor of white travelers and left them riding in the back of the bus. She recalled being embarrassed when a relative gave them some fried chicken to carry as they started their journey.


“The act of the fried chicken,” Burns said, “was the older generation’s understanding of how one traveled in the South. To experience the humiliation there is only a harbinger of what would happen.”

Burns drew a connection between what Robinson and his family went through and the things President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have experienced during his time in office.


“We have several moments in the film where the president of the United States and the first lady are talking about not only their own trajectory but also Jackie and Rachel’s, and you realize that while they are separated by many decades, there’s an extraordinary commonality,” Burns said.

Burns said that he doesn’t think King would be surprised by the regressive reaction from some to the election of the nation’s first black president: “He would be both comforted but understand the destabilizing dynamic that electing an African American represented.”


Both men discussed the Black Lives Matter movement that blossomed across the nation after the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice at the hands of white police officers. Gates, having noted that the black poverty rate has stayed about the same since 1970 while the middle and upper classes have grown exponentially, finds some hope in that movement.

“It would be very easy for far too many people … to accept the temptation to forget about the least among us,” Gates said. “They stood up and said, ‘No, we aren’t going to accept our class position. We are going to risk ourselves to defend the least among us.’ What better tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. can you think of?”


But Burns said there’s a backlash against the movement.

“Black Lives Matter is an incredibly organic movement. But because of the overlay of our media, which has the attention span of a gnat, it has been corrupted by the counternarrative,” Burns explained. “That has pushed it over, as if black lives don’t matter, that those people who are bringing it up are just entitlement welfare people with only violence on their minds, and it plays into the fears of the demagogues and the strongmen, as the National Review called Donald Trump.”


The two historians ended the evening with a call to action for change.

“I think the most important thing we could do,” said Gates, “is to address the economic inequities in this society that allow anti-black racism to grow, and until we do … we’ll be having the same damn conversation about race for the next 50 years. And I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of it.”